As the Senate prepares to vote Monday on four likely doomed measures to stop terrorists from buying guns, the real work will occur off the chamber’s floor as members from both parties try to bridge their still-wide gap on how best to solve the problem.
Both sides are resigned to the likelihood that neither the Democrats’ two proposals nor Republicans’ two will get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, so they are already laying the groundwork for a legislative Plan B after those proposals fail.
“A lot of our members have good ideas for fighting terror and I don’t think Monday’s votes will be the last you’ll see,” a Republican leadership aide said.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is leading talks with a bipartisan slate of senators -- including Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona -- on a bill that would bar people on the Transportation Security Administration’s “no-fly” and “selectee” lists from buying guns, a smaller group than other Democratic bills would ban from getting guns, which Republicans fear is overly broad.
It would also provide an appeals process for individuals seeking to contest their blocked purchases, and contains a five year “look-back” proposal that flags the FBI when someone who has been on either watch list within the last five years purchases a gun.
“Senator Collins is working closely with Republicans and Democrats to draft a targeted, compromise proposal,” spokeswoman Annie Clark said in an email.
A spokeswoman for Heitkamp said the North Dakota senator “believes there needs to be a real bipartisan discussion about what any bill to address what the terror watch list issue would look like so that it actually addresses the issue at hand and gets enough bipartisan support to pass in the Senate.”
After the four planned votes were announced Thursday, Democrats and Republicans both touted their respective bills, even as no one seemed confident that any of them would pass.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s measure, one of the four being voted on Monday, would bar anyone on terrorist watch lists from buying a gun and allow the U.S. attorney general to block known or suspected terrorists if there were a “reasonable belief” that the individual was going to use the weapon for terrorism.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas has a separate bill, essentially the Republican answer to Democrat Feinstein’s, which would block the sale of guns to people on watch lists for 72 hours to give the government an opportunity to prove, through the court system, that the person was actually a terrorism threat.
Both Feinstein’s and Cornyn’s bills received Senate votes in December after the San Bernardino, California, shootings, and neither passed. Feinstein’s bill got 45 votes and Cornyn’s received 55, both shy of the 60 votes needed to pass the chamber.
This time around, Feinstein, of California, predicted her bill still wouldn’t get much Republican buy-in.
She told reporters Wednesday evening that Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who had co-sponsored previous bipartisan gun legislation, told her, “no Republican would support [the Feinstein bill], which indicated to me that the NRA has spoken.”
And while Cornyn told reporters Thursday that he believed his bill could pass because he stripped it of a prior measure on immigration that was anathema to the other side, Democrats said that the gun portion of the bill was still unacceptable.
“Anything Cornyn wants, the NRA wants, I’m opposed to,” Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters earlier in the week.
Both Feinstein’s and Cornyn’s amendments also now contain a new look-back provision that would flag the Department of Justice anytime someone who had been under investigation for terrorism within the previous five years tried to buy a gun, a slightly broader prescription than Collins’ proposal.
That measure appears to have broad bipartisan support, and both sides acknowledge could have possibly flagged the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, when he tried to buy a gun, given that the FBI had investigated him three years prior.
But their version of the five-year look-back will likely sink along with the rest of both amendments because they contain so many other items that are nonstarters for one side or the other.
The Senate will also vote Monday on two other proposals, including one from Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York that would close the “gun show loophole” by requiring background checks on gun purchasers at gun shows and over the internet.
But even Murphy, who orchestrated a 15-hour “talk-a-thon” on the Senate floor this week to bring attention to the gun issue, was skeptical that his own proposal would pass.
“I think the background checks bill is going to be tough to pass. Republicans have not been willing to support that,” he told ABC News today.
The fourth amendment is one from Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa that would, in part, “fix the definition of adjudicated mentally incompetent so single doctors can’t infringe on 2nd Amendment rights,” according to a summary.
Aides to Reid said many Democrats object to that section because they are concerned it would allow people who have been involuntarily committed because of mental illness to buy a gun immediately after leaving a psychiatric hospital, and because it would allow veterans who suffer from mental illness to buy guns.
But spokespeople for Grassley rejected that characterization, saying the individual would have to be both discharged from a hospital and deemed, by the “appropriate official,” to not be “a danger to himself, herself or others.”
Still, it seemed the Grassley-Cruz bill would not get adequate bipartisan support to pass, either.
Amid preparations for Monday’s votes on the four bills, all of which address more than one aspect of the gun issue, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., introduced a much narrower bill Wednesday that would require background checks to include a person’s history of being investigated for ties to terrorism, and that would flag the FBI if a gun buyer is or has ever been under investigation for terrorism.
But a spokesman for Nelson noted that he couldn’t file his proposal as an amendment Thursday, when the other four bills were lined up, because the senator was with President Obama in Orlando, inspecting the scene of Sunday’s mass shooting at Pulse nightclub there and speaking with victims’ families.
“He was with the president in Orlando all day and he’s still down there now,” a Nelson spokesman said. “He plans to introduce his proposal as an amendment as soon as they get back Monday and hopes it will get called up for a vote.”